Portage la Prairie's own Max Neill is making his mark in the North American Hockey League this season.
This is the forward's second season in the league and first as a part of the Minnesota Wilderness, where he is tied for second on the team in goals with 13. Neill spent two seasons in the MJHL prior to heading south of the border, both of which came as a part of the Steinbach Pistons. The local product describes the challenges he faced when adjusting to the NAHL.
"It's a lot deeper here. I think there's a little bit more of a drop-off in the MJHL when you go from the top six forwards to the bottom six," Neill explains. "The biggest difference is probably that the goaltending in this league is very strong. There are a lot of really good goalies in this league, and it's hard to score goals."
Neill has 32 points over 40 games so far this season and accumulated 20 points in 46 games last season with the Johnstown Tomahawks. After being traded in the offseason, Neill says this year started off as a bit of a rollercoaster, but notes they have seemed to find their groove in the new year as the Wilderness have won seven of their eight games played in 2022 and have picked up six straight victories.
This recent hot stretch has been, in no small part, due to the stellar play of Neill himself. The Portager has put up 14 points over the last eight games, including a hat-trick this past weekend. Neill was also named the NAHL's Player of the Month for the month of January. He describes what they'll want to do to keep things rolling into the postseason.
"I think it's just about staying healthy and playing our game. We've won six in a row here and we've just been sticking to our structure," Neill continues. "We added another coach to our coaching staff, which has really helped. We just have to be consistent every game."
The forward came up in the Central Plains Capitals system and describes what he learned with that program that he has carried with him on his hockey journey.
"In the 2001 age group, there was a lot of really good players and we just learned how to battle," says Neill. "We were playing against those Winnipeg teams and we're trying to win as many games as we could. I think it made every one of us work really hard and play as a team. Those were probably the biggest things I learned, how to play as a team and just work ethic."
Neill says his main focus is on bringing a championship to the Wilderness this season but notes he hopes to continue his playing career beyond this season.
"I'm hoping to make a Division 1 (in the NCAA) commitment soon here. That's definitely my biggest goal outside of winning, which is the most important thing. It's a long season, so we'll see what happens but this has been a good stretch for us and I hope we continue to be strong here down the stretch."
Neill, and the Wilderness, are two-thirds of the way through their season with just 20 games left before the playoffs.